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Appreciation at Work

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Key Takeaways

  • As organizations across the world are experimenting with better ways to sustain their employees' engagement, appreciations and recognition programs have flourished in the last five years as a tool of predilection for making employees feel valued
  • Broadcasting recognition has made a significant entry: 49% of employees prefer to be recognized in a narrow public setting, such as a team or group event against 34% privately
  • When we take the time to train and invest in an appreciative mindset, we uncover more reasons for being appreciative. The same can be said about trust, empathy, integrity, etc.: what we focus on, grows
  • Appreciation analysis can help management uncover what is important to them, what performance criteria they value the most and why, therefore be more aware of their own unconscious bias
  • People aspire to be understood as a whole person, along with their personal lives, and want to work for companies willing to support their overall life and career goals
  • When we separate ourselves from the appreciation, we allow people to develop the confidence that they are appreciated even if they are different and we allow them to bring radically different ideas

Appreciation Works

As organizations across the world are experimenting better ways to support their employees’ engagement at work, appreciation and recognition programs flourished, in the last five years, among the best if not the tool of predilection for making employees feel valued.

While various appreciation studies are producing mind-blowing conclusions, employees’ appreciation became every CEOs and CIOs’ top priority, and here’s why:

  • Companies who have a strategic employee recognition program in place report more than 71% higher employees’ engagement than companies without a program
  • 46% of senior managers consider appreciation programs an investment, rather than an expense due to their positive outcome
  • Praise and recognitions from managers are the best motivator for performance at work

Depending on the questions asked or the population sampled, we can see slight variation in trends, but it is very interesting to note that the last 3 to 5 years data is consistent across industries and companies: everyone is a customer and appreciation is a highly customizable organizational product with measurable outcomes:

  • Broadcasting recognition has made a significant entry: 49% of employees prefer to be recognized in a public setting, such as a team or group event against 34% privately
  • The rank and title of the person providing the recognition is becoming less important, while peer recognition is increasing in importance: 32% of employees prefer to be recognized by their direct manager against 31% by peers
  • Feeling valued is no longer linked to heroics or difficult accomplishments: in an increasingly globally distributed world, 54% of employees prefer to be recognized for their day to day job, simply, verbally with a thank you

The Brain on Appreciation

If the ROI of appreciation on employees’ engagement and organizations growth are now well documented, the benefits that appreciation provides to the givers of these appreciation are more difficult to understand and measure. Appreciation benefits are not limited to companies’ cost saving, performance, and customers’ growth. It turns out that they benefit individuals and teams and influence cultural development in many unexpected ways.

Studies are demonstrating that the more appreciative and grateful we are in life and at work, the more joyful and healthy we become. The brain can only process one emotion at a time, it can’t produce negative and positive emotions at the exact same moment. When we express positive, elevated and happy emotions, it contributes to reducing toxic emotions, such as stress, frustration, sadness or resentment. Positive emotions created by grateful expressions leave a positive impression on our brain and psyche that contributes to decreasing negative impressions.

Also, reflecting and acting on what’s great about our environment and our peers, reinforces the positive qualities about them. When we take the time to train and invest in an appreciative mindset, we uncover more reasons for being appreciative. The same can be said about trust, empathy, integrity, etc.: what we focus on, grows.

An NIH study (Zahn et al, 2009) has tracked brain activity during appreciative and grateful expressions and demonstrated that gratefulness positively impacts the hypothalamus, which is responsible for the human metabolism, health and stress levels. Also, an appreciative outlook in life and at work affects dopamine’s levels, known as the reward neurotransmitter. When we give appreciation, we propel our brain onto a continuous cycle of virtuous thoughts and actions. The more we do it, the more we want to do it!

In a previous article about Joy, we mentioned that people are wired to work together in community, not individually towards heroics. Few studies have shown that when we give donations for example to a community we know and we are involved with, we develop greater levels of happiness and satisfaction because we feel connected with the people of that community. In similar ways, appreciating people we collaborate with daily, and we know, contributes to keeping us healthier because not only our mind focusses on positive outcomes, but we see first-hand how we can make someone we know feel better about themselves and happier. We then naturally empathize with receivers’ levels of happiness.

It is no surprise that peer to peer appreciation are increasingly becoming a preferred way of appreciating and being appreciated, and here is why we should encourage this trend: employees thrive better and are more engaged at work when they build meaningful relationships, connections and moreover friendships at work. It is shown to improve team collaboration, safety in complex and innovative problem-solving situations, as well as teamwork performance. Peer to peer appreciation creates a culture centered around a community, and not just co-workers. Supported by these connections, individuals become more resilient to change and stress, become less competitive or resentful of others’ accomplishments, which elevates their self-esteem and confidence. Teams naturally move from a critical culture towards a safe and appreciative one.

Learning From Appreciation: Organizational & Personal Pitfalls

We’ve established the irrefutable benefits of appreciation at the workplace. Nevertheless, in 2019, not all employees feel that they are appreciated in ways that make them feel valued and engaged. Therefore, companies are investing in appreciation solutions, and in sentiment analysis tools to help better understand their appreciation data and trends. A deeper dive into the history of employees within the last industrial revolutions and the way appreciation were offered, teaches us a lot about organizational and managerial values, and about ourselves.

Let’s go back in history to understand how we got here, and why people-centric appreciation are so important at this moment of our history. Between the first industrial revolution that started in 1760 and today’s 4th industrial revolution, employees were considered as human resources and assets in comparison to capital assets. Employees were almost considered as an extension of the machinery they were operating as they were expected to mirror its movements and pace, not the opposite. Incentives were rewarded only based on work performance.  It’s not until the beginning of 2000 that experts started looking at human resources through the lens of people and introduced ideas and slogan such as human resources are our most important assets, putting people above capital assets. It was then a progress, but employees were still considered as human resources. Only very recently, people started socializing the idea that employees are people, not human resources. Some organizations promptly nominated Chief People Officers and rebranded their HR to People departments. Until very recently, people were appreciated only similarly as capital equipment or even lesser.

When we buy equipment, we know its value since we paid for it. Once we use it, it starts depreciating. When we bring in new people, there’s an expectation that they will drive value and enhance the company’s ROI. We can only estimate their value, and we believe we don't fully know it until they prove it to the company. This is probably one of the main reasons why employers focused only on appreciation based on performance value add from their perspective only. Companies didn’t understand or promote the fact that while equipment depreciates, employees appreciate with time due to their accumulated experience, training, personal development and growth.

Today, in the fourth industrial revolution, defined by knowledge workers, interconnection, information transparency and decentralized decisions, people are at the center of everything organizations do. Dr. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum reminded leaders and citizens to:

"together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people."

He also said:

"The underlying basis for 4IR lies in advanced communication and connectivity rather than technology".  

Now that we know that people we employ have an intrinsic value that is appreciating independently from the work they deliver, we just need to remind them!

Organizational Values

The content of our appreciation, because based on and influenced by companies’ values, can become a feedback mechanism to leadership to avoid unconscious bias traps or to help move these values forward to better align with the imperatives of the fourth industrial revolution and the knowledge workers’ economy.

Each organization has its own cultural and managerial values, as well as related standards of performance. Some organizations value teamwork while others value individual accomplishments. Some value speed and autonomy while some foster alignment and governance. We tend to appreciate the value of work and performance based on what leadership and management value, talk about, socialize, publicly recognize, exemplify. These performance elements, sometimes detrimentally, become the baseline for performance and recognition. But appreciation based only on company performance indicators can lead to damaging team moral when these teams may each be at different maturity and fluency levels. While the recommendation is to tie to some extent appreciation to company goals, it is nevertheless as important to tie recognitions to the intrinsic value of individuals and teams. As an example, it is as effective, if not more, to tie appreciation to people development aspirations. Development goals being generally more personal, appreciation of their progress towards those goals are more likely to drive their engagement and retention, against work performance appreciation only. These recognitions require managers to be more tuned to their employees’ journey and their growth.

Management Values

Managers appreciate based on managerial values in place or based on what they know of management, leadership and performance. Traditionally, managers manage people who deliver work for them, and their performance is evaluated based partly on the performance of their employees. It is therefore tempting for managers to appreciate and recognize the value of their top performers mostly based on what they need from them and how their top people and teams reflect on them. Managers may also be tempted to compare people and teams. Some organizations used to, or still stack rank their employees against each other as part of their annual performance appraisal. If the practice has been eradicated in most organizations, the habit and mindset still perdure.

As seen, appreciation analysis can help management uncover what is important to them, what performance criteria they value the most and why, therefore be more aware of their own unconscious bias.

In a world that is increasing in complexity, we need to recognize that accomplishments and appreciation come in multitude forms, multitude dimensions, levels of personalization and that they are much more strategic than just addressing retention. They are a very powerful tool that shapes and influences the future of culture and work: recognizing teams where they are, for overcoming long lasting dynamic issues, as an example, can be more effective to drive an all for one culture, rather than continuously recognizing heroic weekend deployments.

Appreciation Practices & Trends

Appreciating People At Work versus Workers

It is tempting to limit recognitions to the work people perform. But as seen, employees express a growing need to be appreciated as a whole. Workers are becoming more holistic, more complete. They are no longer just analysts or project managers, they are called to understand and learn so many more practices related to their work, but also related to other disciplines and technologies, such as analytics, managing change, new technologies, AI, onboarding, agile, product management, etc. We have to recognize people efforts in becoming whole and in apprehending their work in a more holistic manner. People also aspire to be understood as a whole person, with their personal lives and want to work for companies willing to support their overall life and career goals.

Empathic Appreciation

As seen, we easily can fall into the unconscious bias trap and recognize people based on what we need or what’s important to us. How can we solve for that? Some practices can help individuals while effectively supporting a culture of inclusion and collaboration.

  • We tend to give appreciation mostly to people we share affinities with. Instead, we can experiment sharing appreciation with people we don’t understand or work well with. We don’t need to agree with everything someone says or does in order to recognize them. This practice largely increases our ability to empathize and build better working relationships with different people. In fact, appreciating someone for disagreeing with us, for bringing new perspectives, is a great opportunity to build empathy and inclusiveness.
  • Appreciating something, a skill we don’t have, we don’t need, but that we see as valuable for the organization is a way to acknowledge the unique qualities they bring to a team. This practice increases collaboration, overall performance and engagement.

When we separate ourselves from the appreciation, we allow people to develop the confidence that they are appreciated even if they are different and we allow them to bring radically different ideas. It contributes to developing a sense of belonging and inclusiveness from both sides, the giver and the receiver of the appreciation.

The Connected Enterprise

As seen, recognition are no longer the prerogative of people managers and they are trending towards more public forms of recognition. Appreciation are no longer tied with hierarchy and organizational structures following thereby new agile ways of working: agile is moving organizations towards a people empowered culture, new networked ways of working that defy hierarchy and silos. Like many practices introduced by the agile mindset, appreciation is shaping the new connected enterprise. Publicly broadcasted appreciation socializes work that people, teams, groups and organizations are doing, and become a mine of information about people, products and projects. This not only keeps us connected, more engaged, it fosters an all for one culture.

Closing

If appreciation at work is still a fairly new practice, we are at an important junction of its history. Companies started analyzing appreciation to help them address not just employees’ engagement and retentions gaps but leverage them as an empowerment tool that inform, support and influence the future of work and culture. When we appreciate people for their unique ideas and contributions in ways that are meaningful to them, we validate their value and remind them that they belong.

Welcome to The Future of Work:
Pretend you are a human being.
Be empathic.
Be agile.

About the Author

Shaaron A Alvares is a News Reporter and Editor for DevOps, Culture and Methods at InfoQ and works as an Agile Transformation Coach and Trainer at T-Mobile in Bellevue, Washington. She is Certified Agile Leadership, Certified Agile Coach from the International Consortium for Agile, and Agile Certified Practitioner, with a global work experience in technology and organizational transformation. She introduced lean agile product and software development practices within various global Fortune 500 companies in Europe, such as BNP-Paribas, NYSE-Euronext, ALCOA Inc. and has led significant lean agile and DevOps practice adoptions and transformations at Amazon.com, Expedia, Microsoft, T-Mobile. She focuses on introducing the Agile mindset and customized value-driven practices aligned with organizational performance goals. Blogger, writer and speaker at local organizations, she is board member, advisor and contributor to global agile organizations such as Scrum Total, Agnostic Agile. Shaaron published her MPhil and PhD theses with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

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